Denying The Obvious

The Greatest Obstacle to Discovery is Not Ignorance – It is the Illusion of Knowledge”1


Our local high school, Adlai E. Stevenson, of Lincolnshire, IL, is one of the highest-rated secondary schools in Illinois.  This is because the administration stresses academic excellence and produces many national merit scholars.

Both of my children attended Stevenson High School in the late 1980s and 1990s.  During this time, I had the opportunity to talk with Deputy Sheriff Perry Coleman of the Lake County (IL) Sheriff’s Department. We discussed many topics, including the illegal drug problem that was plaguing many high schools.  The Stevenson Superintendent declared that there wasn’t a drug problem.

When I asked Deputy Coleman about that, he laughed aloud.  He said the Superintendent can say there is no drug problem at Stevenson because he does not acknowledge it exists.  The Sheriff’s Department was prohibited from entering Stevenson High School unless a serious crime was committed or they were invited in. It is not clear if the Superintendent was in denial of the problem or was obfuscating.  In either case, since there were no students caught dealing or using drugs or arrests, he could continue to deny the existence of a drug problem. This is a variation of the famous “Catch-22,” in which the solution to a problem is impossible because it is also the cause of the problem.

Deputy Coleman told me that if he were able to bring the county’s drug-sniffing dogs into Stevenson and walk them by the student’s lockers, they would probably have heart attacks from all the drugs he believed were being stored by students.

I asked my then-teenage children if that was true, and they confirmed Deputy Coleman’s statement.  But the Superintendent continued to profess there was no drug problem at Stevenson High School. (In 2012, there was a significant drug bust at the Stevenson.)

Some people refuse to recognize an object in front of their eyes. This is called denialism by psychologists.  It may be uncomfortable for them to accept or cope with an empirical reality, so they deny it. Perhaps an example is a woman who is really a size ten dress but insists on buying a size eight because she doesn’t want to admit that she gained weight. Or they may consider it to be insulting or damaging to their reputation or out of their control, like the Stevenson superintendent, so denial is a way of maintaining their status quo.

Denial of reality does not become truth.

It reminds me of the scene in the movie Casablanca when Rick Blaine’s casino (acted by Humphrey Bogart) is suddenly closed by French Captain Renault (Claude Rains) for gambling, which is illegal. At the same time, he accepts his winnings from a croupier, stating, “I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.”2

Sometimes, we know what the obvious decision to make is, but we choose otherwise. We may be thinking with our heart, emotionally, rather than our brain. We do this when we are shopping for an automobile and know that a Honda Accord will meet our needs, but instead choose to purchase a BMW.

Management consultant Aditya Pandit says that sometimes, in corporations, people tend to choose complex solutions and “overlook solutions that might solve the same problem as effectively as the complicated solution.”3 Why is that? Do we derive greater satisfaction in choosing a more complex solution? Or, maybe we are trying to impress our managers and peers by successfully implementing a more difficult solution. A simpler solution may be more straightforward but may not help us achieve our career goals.

But, whether you like it or not, you are more likely to achieve inner peace when you can accept reality.4 Remaining in denial will only result in unhappiness and perhaps the scorn of others who see that you may need mental health assistance. The reality may not be desirable, but living in the world of fantasy is not the best solution. “Dogmatic certainty is the enemy of true discovery.”5



1 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Washington Post, January, 1984. It was also attributed to Stephen Hawking and others.